Under oath, Reardon denied illegal political activity

  • By Scott North and Jerry Cornfield Herald Writers
  • Tuesday, December 29, 2015 4:27pm
  • Local NewsLocal news

OLYMPIA — To hear former Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon tell it, the hours he spent talking and texting with his most-trusted campaign consultants and political advisers while at work in 2011 had nothing to do with getting him re-elected.

It was just standard operating procedure, Reardon told an investigator for the state Public Disclosure Commission in October.

“It’s been well documented, I am a prolific networker,” he said. “I believe in building relationships. I believe in getting input from the smartest people around and having them help me govern and navigate. And I do that to this day.”

The comments came during a half-hour conversation, under oath, as the commission staff explored allegations that Reardon and then-aide Kevin Hulten campaigned on the taxpayer’s dime in 2011.

Reardon’s answers didn’t convince commission staff, who early this month filed civil charges against the pair at the conclusion of a three-year probe.

State investigators determined Reardon illegally used public resources to support his successful re-election effort, including placing Hulten on his staff and allowing him to engage in campaign activities at work.

Both men now face thousands of dollars in fines. Hearings are tentatively scheduled for February.

Reardon and Hulten both have since moved to California. Although they have left Washington and its political scene, meaningful enforcement still is important if the allegations are true, said former state auditor Brian Sonntag.

“The PDC needs to rule not just to make them an example but to be an example to those who are in elected office and would seek to be,” said Sonntag, who earned a reputation for his ethical practice of politics.

“You still have got how many hundreds of people in elected office in this state and it is important they know that if you shield the public from what you’re doing, and if you use state resources in the conduct of your campaign, it’s wrong and it’s illegal,” Sonntag said.

Reardon resigned in 2013 after a series of stories in The Daily Herald revealed his misconduct before, during and after the 2011 election. Hulten quit his county job after homemade pornography was found on one of the county computers he’d been using. Investigators also recovered electronic fingerprints that showed him digging for dirt and encouraging government investigations of Reardon political rivals, particularly his 2011 election opponent, Mike Hope, then a Republican state representative from Lake Stevens.

State investigators spoke with Reardon in an October phone interview. At the time, he was subject to a civil subpoena. The conversation was recorded and took place after Reardon was placed under oath.

The Daily Herald obtained a copy under state records laws.

Reardon didn’t dispute that phone bills for his county-issued cellphone show hundreds of calls and texts between him and several campaign consultants during the months leading to the 2011 election. He insisted, however, there was nothing amiss. The consultants who were then helping him strategize and raise money and create TV commercials for his campaign also were longtime personal advisers, Reardon said. Any conversations were about issues he faced as an elected official, not his re-election bid, he said.

When the commission investigator told Reardon that his former fundraising consultant already said the phone conversations were all campaign-related, Reardon insisted otherwise.

“That would not be accurate,” he said.

Commission staff also attempted to interview Hulten, without success. Their report on the investigation says he did not respond to multiple subpoenas.

Hulten in April 2014 did submit 38 pages of statements and exhibits, in which he urged the election watchdogs to dismiss the case.

“As a Democratically-minded single person with a vested interest in ensuring my continued employment, in 2011 I volunteered my time — exclusively outside of work — to volunteer for the Re-Elect Aaron Reardon campaign,” he wrote.

Hulten acknowledged that the commission received documentation from the county showing him engaged on various aspects of Reardon’s campaign, but he insisted the materials weren’t stored on county equipment. Those who think otherwise don’t understand cloud-based data storage services such as Dropbox, he wrote.

“I did not do work on any of these projects or documents while using my work computer or laptop, nor did I conduct the work on county time, nor did Aaron Reardon instruct me to work on them,” he wrote. “Any information that was shared with the campaign was done by me as a private citizen on my own time.”

Hulten’s statement doesn’t address a memo recovered from one of the county computers he used, in which he complained about insufficient reward from Reardon for engaging in what he described as political “black hat jobs.” He also didn’t explain evidence King County detectives recovered through forensic analysis of the computers Hulten used. Among other things, that work showed Hulten repeatedly using a county laptop to develop Reardon’s campaign website in July 2011.

Reardon told investigators he brought Hulten on staff in January 2011 at the recommendation of state Sen. Steve Hobbs, who at the time was Hulten’s boss. Reardon said he had seriously considered not seeking a third term, and it was a query from Hobbs during filing week in 2011 that finally prompted his decision.

“That was something I had to really, really think about. My heart was not necessarily into the job,” Reardon said.

After Reardon’s 2013 announcement that he would resign, Hulten used a data wiping program on one of the county laptops he’d been provided. He later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor evidence tampering.

During the October conversation, a state investigator asked Reardon if he knew whether Hulten had been trying to protect somebody, or perhaps was paid to remove the data.

“I don’t know what he was doing. I did not monitor that,” Reardon said. “… And I haven’t had any conversations with him, so I don’t know what’s in his mind.”

The upcoming commission hearings could play out like a trial. Commission investigators would lay out their allegations, including any recommendations for punishment, said PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson.

Reardon and Hulten would each get a chance to respond. Commissioners would be able to question each of them, as well. And those interviewed as part of the PDC probe could be called to testify, she said.

But it might not reach that point.

“There always is an attempt by our staff to talk with respondents before a hearing date, and if we think there is a chance the case will settle, we will work toward that,” Anderson said.

A proposed settlement agreement could include stipulations about the facts, violations and penalty, she said. However, commissioners are under no obligation to accept the terms of a settlement agreement between the accused and the staff, she said.

Reardon and Hulten each could face significant financial penalties.

State law allows the commission to impose a fine of up to $10,000 per violation. The charging documents don’t specify the number of alleged violations. That’s something the commission gets to decide.

For example, commissioners could decide that each of the more than 50 times Reardon allegedly had improper contact with one campaign consultant amounted to a new violation, Anderson said. That alone could push his potential fine into six figures.

The ability to levy such a hefty fine makes it less likely commissioners will hand the case over to Attorney General Bob Ferguson to resolve.

Commissioners went to Ferguson in September to have him investigate ballot-initiative promoter Tim Eyman’s handling of campaign funds in 2012.

Unlike the Reardon and Hulten cases, no civil charges were filed against Eyman. PDC staff found what they believed to be an abundance of evidence of election law violations and suggested commissioners send it directly to Ferguson to handle, which they did, Anderson said. The attorney general has not yet announced any action against Eyman.

Scott North: 425-339-3431; north@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snorthnews

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